Zhan Zhuang: Standing Qigong

Preparation; the Stance:
To begin with, there is a way of sitting down that helps in this process:
Step out to a shoulder's width, if the toes are turned out at all it should only be slightly, and once there, calm the body. Soften the feet, and put approximately 70° of the weight on the heels – this is the point of ‘balance’ in the body (as opposed to the point of ‘gravity’ which is slightly further forward and is the line that promotes forward movement – Alexander technique). Relax the toes and rest them on the floor; the knees should be straight – not bent forward or locked backward (if in doubt, bend them slightly, then lock them backward, and then find the mid-position).
A note about this: Don’t be too fixed about the 70°. The body will move all the time around the 70° mark, if you try to hold it in that place you are simply going to be tensing or fixing muscles, which defeats the point.

Connecting & Aligning the Body:
Soften the small of the back and the buttocks, allowing the pelvis to settle into a comfortable position. Be conscious of connecting the pelvis both to the knees and to the ankles, and of the weight of the body spreading over the feet.

The shoulders should ‘hang’ off the spine, rather like a coat hanger on a hat stand – the spine being the hat stand! Try feeling the weight of your hands – almost as though they were separate from you. To do this you have to let go of the wrists. Each hand weighs about 2lbs – the weight of a bag of flour. To this add the weight of the forearms (somewhere between 3-4lbs) – for this you need to open the elbow joints. Finally, add the weight of the upper arms (4-8lbs maybe) – to feel the weight of the entire arm means that you must let go of the shoulder joints.

The neck should not only relax, but should feel as though it is lengthening; this is a feeling as though being lifted from behind by someone gently holding the back of your neck under the base of the skull. This is what the ‘crown of the head suspended’ means; there is a release of the vertebrae down the entire length of the spine, but usually most obviously in the neck.

In this last action, the release of the lower jaw is very important. If the lower jaw is tensed, it results in the neck muscles tightening; it is therefore essential to release it so that the neck finds its correct alignment. The jaw releases not by dropping, but by moving forwards and downwards, i.e. when the muscles that hold it in place in the temporo-mandibular joint relax, this is its natural trajectory. This doesn’t mean that the mouth has to hang open, quite the contrary; the lips can rest together lightly.

The action of the jaw releasing also allows the neck to move slightly backwards. This is a simple matter of mechanics; if you allow the jaw to move forwards and downwards, a fraction more weight also moves ahead of you, and the neck needs to compensate by moving back slightly.

The knack of all this is to do all of it without forcing anything. It is done through conscious release of muscles, and most important of all through the feeling of the release. Forcing any of this will just set up new patterns of misalignment.

Sitting Down:
1) The Legs
This is a very gentle, conscious, process, by which I mean that you should feel what is happening to your body as you do an action that you normally do several hundred times a day unconsciously.

First of all, from the 70° on the heels position, rock the weight slightly further back on to the heels – e.g. maybe 75° or 80°. You are trying to trigger a reaction in the body that causes the knees to bend. [To make a fairly crude example of this – if you were standing up, and rocked your weight so far back that you were about to fall over, the only way that you could avoid falling without stepping back, would be to bend your knees and fold the body. This is what you are doing here, but in a far less extreme way].

As you rock the weight slightly further back, soften the knees, allowing them to give.
It is then vital that you release the ankles and the hips – in particular the small of the back. In my experience, the ankles take care of themselves, but most people do not release either the small of the back, the hip joints themselves where the legs meet the pelvis, nor the muscles between the thighs. It is absolutely essential to let go of these, and to sit down slowly enough so that one can feel the opening and expansion/lengthening of these muscles.

2) Having sat down, lifting the arms should be done very slowly to avoid lifting the shoulders, tensing the neck, and altering the balance so that the rest of the body locks up again.

Lift the arms a couple of inches, then stop and check for any tension, particularly in the shoulders and back of neck. Most people use their shoulders for lifting their arms, in other words they involve an excessive use of the trapezius muscle; this starts to lift the scapula (shoulder-blade), and tenses the neck.

As you gradually lift the hands higher and higher in front of the body, stopping at regular intervals to scan for any tension, unless you are careful the weight will start to move over your toes which will lock the legs and hips. It is just a matter of being aware of this, and readjusting the weight to feel as though it is 70° on the heels.

3) The palms should face the body as they rise, with a small space between each finger – the thumbs can be slightly wider.
Lift the arms with the wrists rather than the elbows. In the final position, the elbows will be out on either side of you – the forearms not parallel to the ground, but angled at no less that 45°.

The Tongue:
The tongue should rest very lightly on the upper palate.
To find the correct place, put the tip of your tongue just behind the upper teeth and run/curl it backwards towards the back of the mouth. At a certain point it will rise up a steep incline; usually somewhere around the place where the incline starts is a place which ‘tickles’ more than other places. This is the place to rest the tongue.

In my experience, it is possible to get into the Zhan Zhuang position any way you like and then to make the corrections whilst sitting, but I think that this is harder.

Feeling the ‘Correct’ Position:
When everything is aligned correctly, it is like opening the energy system of the body. When teaching, I often use the analogy of the garden hosepipe for the energy in the body; when the hosepipe is working well, all the water that comes from the tap comes out of the end of the hosepipe. However, if there is a slight twist in the pipe, the water can get restricted, and pressure can build up in certain parts of the pipe.
The aim of Zhan Zhuang is to put the body in such a position that all the pipes are wide open, but at the same time you are creating a pump by sitting down and lifting the arms – in other words, the combination of slight tension in the legs and arms creates a minute vibration that pumps the energy around the body.

The results of this are fascinating:
As you gradually become more and more accustomed to the position, the aches and pains, and the shaking disappear and are replaced by a sense of strength and calmness in the joints.

When you first start, the nervous system plays games with you – telling you how bored you are, and how you would be much better off doing anything else. As you become accustomed to the position, the nervous system settles and you begin to observe the changes in the body as well as the feeling of rest that moves through the body.

As the energy starts to circulate, it meets ‘blocks’ in the body, which can cause discomfort. The discomfort tells you where the problems are, and, over time, the energy appears to be able to correct them. The majority of people tend to give up at this point – it becomes a bit too unpleasant to persevere. This doesn’t mean that you have to do the exercise in a state of agony; it means that you go slightly beyond your comfort zone, then you rest before continuing. It seems that, in most cases (being unable to speak for everyone), you pass through the ‘block’.

My own experience of this convinced me that it was a great way to heal the body – I had had a number of digestive problems for many years and began to practice Zhan Zhuang every day for prolonged periods of time. After a few weeks, I began to get a very noisy rumbling in the stomach; when practising in the class that I went to every Sunday morning for an hour, I was convinced that the entire class could hear (they probably could). But after several weeks of this, the rumbling stopped, and so did the digestive problems.

Other Effects:
The other aspect of doing this exercise is that there is an increase in energy. When the body is uncomfortable, when the posture isn’t quite right, the body is fighting itself. But gradually, as you start to correct the postural problems, there is a sensation of tremendous energy release in the body, as though the latent energy of all the cells combines and unites – a sensation of the combined energy of (for example) 3 cells, being greater than the individual total. This manifests in many ways, a sensation of warmth, comfort, tingling, expansion, fullness, calm, strength, stability, grounded-ness, a sensation of fitting into the template of your body, of not being your body or being more than your body, confidence, alertness, and a feeling of immense physical power.

Other Sources Worth Reading ...
There are many books and articles about this type of qigong. For example, ‘The Way of Energy’ by Lam Kam Chuen is very clear, with good diagrams, and an excellent chart telling you what physical effects to expect. It is also well worth reading Karel Koskuba’s excellent article on the subject, Zhan Zhuang - Foundation of Internal Martial Arts.